Innovative Prosecutors are Promoting Police Accountability and Civil Rights

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The Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is part of a growing movement to create criminal justice programs and policies that reduce crime and incarceration. Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) speaker and former Assistant District Attorney Lucy Lang is the IIP’s executive director and a national leader in prosecutorial reform. The following discussion with Lang explores the challenges prosecutors face, the IIP’s groundbreaking work, and how prosecutors are learning from past mistakes to help tackle the civil rights crisis. Learn more about the IIP’s novel toolkit to help prosecutors best respond to officer-involved shootings.

Mikayla Hellwich: Thanks so much for meeting with me. Our social media audience will enjoy hearing from you for many reasons — one of which is that not many people with law enforcement backgrounds are women — so we really appreciate the perspective that you bring to our organization. First, I’d like to talk about your professional background prior to the position you hold now leading the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution.

What made you want to study law?

Lucy Lang: I knew that I wanted to be in public service. It was clear to me that the best way to do that was by becoming a lawyer. So, it was largely strategic, to accelerate my capacity to serve my community and affect change.

What drew you to the prosecutorial side, and did you always want to be a prosecutor? Or did you intend to go in a different direction?

I didn’t always want to be a prosecutor specifically. I was a little kid in New York City in the ’80s, which was a very different time. I had what I now know was a real position of privilege, to have parents who were able to tell me that if I ever got lost or separated from them, to look for a person in a blue uniform, tell them my address, and they would help me. I now have a different perspective, and I see all the complicated layers and the ways in which it was very different for me than it might be for the other kids in New York City at that time and even today. I did have a strong feeling as a kid that there were people in positions of power in my community who were helping make things safer and better. And I wanted to be a part of that.

Are there any moments that stand out to you that made you realize the justice system needs to be fixed?

I had a really transformative moment when I was about four or five. As part of her master’s program, my mother was student teaching at a public school in a class of second graders. One day my school was closed, so I accompanied her. There was a child whose head was down at his desk in the back of the classroom. My mother asked the primary teacher about him and I overheard the teacher say, “I always let him sleep in class because I don’t know what last night was like for him at home.” It really shook me at the time. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, there are children right here in my neighborhood for whom their home life is such that a teacher would allow them to sleep through school.” Even at that very young age, it was incredibly alarming to me. I think it has become part of a holistic way that I think about social problems. One of the things I think is exciting about working in the world of criminal justice reform and improvement is that we’re starting to take a much longer range view and thinking about issues of access and poverty, and all of the complicated ways in which those play into people’s entry into the criminal justice system — either as people who are charged with crimes or as victims or witnesses to crimes.

That early realization was part of what led me to develop the program I teach at several correctional facilities in New York, which is a joint class that brings prosecutors and incarcerated students together to study criminal justice. It is the result of the need to get people proximate to folks with different experiences as a way to remove that feeling of danger and alienation that can sometimes result in bad decision-making and not incorporating the human element into policy decision-making in the best possible ways. I don’t attribute it directly to that experience when I was very young, but I do think it is consistent with the kind of evolution of thinking dating back to that early stage. And it is largely part of growing up in a diverse community. One of the exciting things about living in a city like mine is that there is such a diversity of people, of experiences, of access. I think that is something that the great urban centers of the United States have to teach all of us.

You were an assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 2006 until 2018. What are some of the major moments that stand out in your career? What accomplishments are you especially proud of?

I wouldn’t say that there are moments I’m particularly proud of, but there are relationships that I’m very proud of — there are periods of time. For example, I worked closely with a woman who had been terribly victimized by her longtime boyfriend. We spoke several times per week over a year, while she assessed the merits of whether to go forward against him. As the case proceeded and we evaluated the potential outcomes, it ended up being an experience that’s really stayed with me, because she ultimately left him and cooperated in the prosecution of him. This case must have been more than a decade ago, but I heard from her a couple of months ago and she is not in touch with him at all. She’s recently had a grandchild, and in fact (this is almost embarrassing to say) it really made me feel good about the work, because she told me that her daughter named the grandchild Lucy, as a tribute to me. Her daughter felt she would not have gotten out of that abusive relationship if it wasn’t for the way we worked together on the investigation and prosecution. So, to me, that’s the kind of relationship that stands out and stays with me. Anyone who works in law enforcement has stories like that, that speak to why they’re gratified to do the work.

You later served as the Special Counsel for Policy and Projects and the Executive Director of the DA’s in-house think tank, the Manhattan DA Academy. What is the Manhattan DA Academy, and what do you do there?

The Manhattan DA Academy was a first-of-its-kind, internal think tank to the DA’s office, that serves as a liaison to other agencies. It worked closely with the legal training unit to develop and innovate training programs consistent with an evolving set of values and practices in the DA’s office.

What are some of the other training programs and practices the Manhattan DA Academy has developed?

We did a lot of macro-level training. Like other large DA’s offices, we had a really robust legal training program that focused on the daily practice of investigation and prosecution of criminal cases. But we started to expand into other areas, including bringing in neuroscientists to talk to prosecutors about the evolution of the human brain over the lifespan. So, we started thinking differently about our juvenile cases as a result of training people about neuroscience and youth brain development. We brought in people who were doing innovative work around forensic investigations, sex crimes, and crimes against children, to do higher level training. We worked with doctors at New York City hospitals educating them about the criminal process to make the interaction between doctors, victims, witnesses, prosecutors, and other law enforcement move more quickly and easily, and to be sure that there was transparency and communication between everyone involved. When I was doing policy advising, we worked on the results of the Vera Institute’s study about places in the DA’s office process where there were disparities amongst defendants of different races to try to operationalize interventions that would prevent those disparities. So, it was a pretty wide-ranging mandate during a very exciting time in the conversation around criminal justice. I was very fortunate that just last September, I was asked to serve in a national role doing similar kind of big-picture thinking about criminal justice at John Jay College.

While addressing this need for more interdisciplinary training in law enforcement, are there any other professions that you consulted?

One of my major areas of interest right now, and this is informed in part by having worked with hospitals and seeing the evolution in medicine in this area, is to learn from social workers and people who work in the mental health field about how focusing on the mental health of practitioners can have better outcomes. I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of prosecutorial resiliency [the ability for prosecutors to work through the emotional weight they carry — mostly related to traumatic cases], and how a workforce of prosecutors is likely to be better in the long run for the community. I care about that because I had been handling the most serious cases and really felt like it was taking a toll on me personally — seeing people suffering, witnessing trauma very intimately amongst victims of violent crime and families who had lost loved ones to violent crimes. Even the visceral experience of visiting a crime scene and seeing someone who has been killed — it has an effect on frontline criminal justice workers. So, I am trying to see what we can learn from social work and other fields, like public health, that are getting serious about the mental health and well-being of their workforce.

I also have a strong bent towards education. I do think there’s a lot of interesting work happening around individual dignity and giving people a voice, all the things that we think of as procedural justice. So, I’m also looking a lot to education as a potential place for models of ways we can learn and do better.

One of your colleagues has said of you, that you “positioned our Manhattan DA’s Academy as a national leader in the development of best prosecutorial practices and innovative justice reform partnerships.” What are some of the innovative approaches and best practices the academy has developed or solidified?

The primary one has been to reframe our cultural education as one that is community inclusive. There’s an article by a Seattle district attorney about prosecution that earns community trust. Thinking about the office as proactively engaging with the community has been a part of the office’s evolution. I can’t take responsibility for it, but I was lucky to be a part of that transition. We don’t just have a community affairs unit, although we do, but we’re increasingly encouraging assistant DA’s to go into schools to do presentations about the law to young people, encouraging prosecutors to do what we call “queen for a day” or to have proper conversations with people charged with crimes to try and have a fuller picture. The Manhattan DA’s Office developed an Alternatives to Incarceration Unit to streamline the programs that prosecutors were using as alternatives to detention and incarceration. Those are not innovations out of the DA Academy per se, but they were kind of simultaneously happening in parallel to the development of that organization. I think they worked together to help change the culture, which is still a work in progress, in that office and across the country.

Earlier you mentioned the request you received to serve as the Executive Director for the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which you began last September. How is this organization different from the Manhattan DA Academy?

The IIP is a think tank for all prosecutors across the country to come together with community members and other stakeholders, law enforcement and beyond, to think about the most pressing issues in criminal justice. We are geared towards giving all prosecutors’ offices the tools to do their work in a way that is concentrated on public safety, that is equitable, that values the dignity of all community members, and all law enforcement. It involves developing papers and materials that offices can use to reference in evaluating their own practices. In the next couple of months, we expect to involve open source code materials that offices will be able to use to develop their own internal dashboards to become increasingly data-driven.

We will also have help on the back-end available to offices as they start to develop and improve tech infrastructures and do the kind of data analysis that we think is necessary to ensure that the field is maximizing public safety, fairness, and human dignity. We will be available to support the evolution of policies that address challenges that are identified through practices. There’s this problem of so many law enforcement agencies having essentially paper-based practices or computer systems that don’t allow them to interface with other agencies, or that make it difficult to track and have a real handle on what the different outcomes are. All of that will enable us to help offices make better policies internally and legislatively.

Lang co-organized the following presentation about prosecutorial response to police shootings. IIP prosecutor John Choi and Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile who was fatally shot by police in 2016, teamed up to help create a groundbreaking toolkit to prevent officer-involved shootings and improve investigations following tragic incidents.

What are some of your personal goals in your work for the IIP?

In my mind, there is nowhere that is better situated to address the civil rights crisis, incarceration, and the disparate racial outcomes in the criminal justice system, than in prosecutors’ offices. To that end, I think that providing resources to prosecutors is the best way to solve these really urgent social problems.

Do prosecutors have the kinds of checks and balances on their power that other professions do?

There are as many answers to that question as there are different jurisdictions with different legislative schemes. I do think [prosecutorial power] is overstated because prosecutors are very powerful actors, but in the system where everyone has representation, the judges are the ultimate arbiter of what a sentence will be. So, I don’t mean to underplay the importance of prosecutors, but I do think that the notion of “prosecutors gone wild” may be somewhat overstated. That said, every case that comes through the system comes through a prosecutor’s office, so unlike other agencies that touch community members, like the police, like the department of corrections, prosecutors are elected, so they do have direct accountability that other agencies don’t have. And that’s why I think it’s an area ripe for community-based improvement — because prosecutors by their very composition are almost entirely answerable to the electorate.

What do you predict for the justice system in the next 5, 10, 15 years? What can we look forward to?

One of the reasons that I feel really privileged to be working in criminal justice right now is that I believe that this civil rights crisis will be solved in my lifetime. I think it is going to take a lot of work, all-hands-on-deck from a lot of different agencies and community members, to ensure that it happens. I think the will is there, and we have more data about what doesn’t work. That’s a pretty privileged position in comparison to 30 years ago, or even 15 years ago, when decisions were made without the benefit of hindsight, without the benefit of data, etc. We do know that a lot of these social problems are things we can’t incarcerate our way out of, and I would expect that over the next decade that will bear out in increasingly humane policies that nonetheless prioritize the safety and overall well-being of the community.

Assistant District Attorney Lucy Lang (Fmr.) is the executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution and formerly an assistant D.A. for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York. In addition to prosecutorial reform, she’s using her expertise at LEAP to put an end the use of cash bail and mandatory minimums, promote re-entry programs, and address racial disparities in the justice system. Learn more about the IIP’s toolkit for officer-involved shooting.

Mikayla Hellwich is the speakers bureau & media relations director for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

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